Film industry banking on foreign forays

LONDON — After years of ramping up, the international production divisions of the Hollywood majors are finally beginning to gain traction.

From a Hindi reimagining of “Bride Wars” to a Chinese “High School Musical” to totally indigenous fare, the studios are mounting pics for local auds in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Each studio has its own strategy, but all of the companies — though at various stages of development — emphasize that they are looking for pics that click in specific territories as opposed to generic titles that may travel.

“We entered this business in 1999 in just two markets, handling just four local productions,” says Warner Bros. exec VP of international Richard Fox. “This year we’re scheduled to handle 44 films in 12 countries, with a total of over 210 to date, so you get a sense of how the business has grown.”

The push into these territories reflects a much more worldly view throughout studio ranks, ever more mindful of developing and greenlighting pics for U.S. audiences that easily travel overseas.

The veterans of the game are WB and Sony, with the latter boasting of being the first U.S. major to maintain a stand-alone, local-language production unit operating throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America. The newbie is Paramount, which launched its worldwide group last July, with its first projects expected to be announced at Cannes.

Meanwhile, others are already reaping rewards.

Universal’s first project in its deal with Mexican production company Cha Cha Cha, “Rudo y Cursi,” was released in December and quickly became the third highest-grossing Mexican film of all time at the country’s box office.

Sony’s first U.K. production, “The Damned United,” has grossed $2.6 million since its March bow. U.S. audiences were obviously not the first consideration in the aggressively local-oriented subject matter: The film concerns soccer manager Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day reign at Leeds United in the 1970′s. Sony, which ponied up $2.1 million (£1.5 million) of the $6.4 million (£4.5 million) budget, is pleased.

“There’s no set template or blueprint,” says Deb Schindler, Sony’s prexy of international motion picture production. “Our main criteria for local production is will it perform in its country of origin. That’s what drives everything I look at.”

The two other majors are trying to tap into their conglom know-how, in different ways.

Disney is using local productions to push the Mouse House brand and create platforms upon which to boost ancillary revenues — such as consumer products and theme parks — in countries that haven’t had a prior attachment to the company.

Fox is benefiting from the longtime global view of chief Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. empire, including its various TV nets. Fox Star Studios, for example, was launched last year as a joint movie production, distribution and marketing joint venture between 20th Century Fox and News Corp.’s Asian satcaster Star.

In a symbol of how much the studios are concentrating on the specific markets for which their local films are produced, Warners is a major financier of “Coco Avant Chanel,” a biopic starring Audrey Tatou that will be released in France this month. But WB was content to let Sony Pictures Classics handle the pic’s U.S. distribution.

“The international approach is really a market-by-market one,” says Focus Features Intl. co-topper Christian Grass. “No two markets are the same. In France, we’re making deals on individual projects, while in Italy, it made more sense to establish an alliance with Cattleya. You need that flexibility.”

Cattleya is Italy’s leading indie production house, and the studio acquired a minority stake in it, in a multipronged deal in January as part of its expansion into Europe. The first title to be released following that pact, Umberto Carteni’s “Diverso da chi?” has proven a hit with Italo auds.

“It’s a global business now,” says Grass. “There is no clear distinction anymore between domestic and international.”

Grass had topped Universal’s international production studio, which merged with Focus Features in January to create the newly-monikered Focus Features International. That company is concentrating its efforts across Europe, Latin America and Asia, including deals with Cha Cha Cha (the joint venture of Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu), Russia’s Timur Bekmambetov and Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles.

The other studios and their key territories:

  • Sony has projects in development in Russia, India, China, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, India and the U.K.

  • Warner Bros. is mixing acquisitions — many just for specific international territories — alongside self-funded and self-produced local-language pics. Germany, Japan and India are at the forefront of the studio’s plans, although it also has pics in the pipeline elsewhere.

  • Fox is targeting Japan, Brazil, Russia and India.

  • Disney is concentrating on areas including Russia, China and India.

Even though Disney is rolling out local-language versions of its “High School Musical” franchise in Brazil, Russia and China, and already did so in Mexico and Argentina, the studio is looking for culturally specific fare with indigenous origins.

“Just look at India,” says Jason Reed, exec VP of Walt Disney Studios motion picture production. “You have an 80% market share for local content. Indians like their own stories. Just doing a Hindi version of ‘Enchanted’ doesn’t translate into success. We really want to emphasize the localization element.”

At Par, the new team includes former Vantage senior VP of production and acquisitions Matt Brodlie at the helm. In January Par tapped former New Line exec Alexandra Rossi and Televisa’s Mineko Mori to oversee the division’s European and Latin American productions, respectively.

While the stakes may be lower in terms of investment, there are still plenty of risks in trying to tap the local-language arena. Local-language pics are now a part of the day-to-day operations of the studios. And there’s a heightened sense of urgency as auds across the globe show an increased appetite for local content.

In Japan, for example, the split between locally generated pics and imports was about 50-50 for years. Last year, however, revenues generated by Hollywood films released locally decreasing by almost 24% while those of Japanese-language local films increased 22%.

Partnerships and a smart sense of the native scene are key to making local inroads, and something that Fox has aimed to capitalize on.

The studio, which launched its international production division in May 2008 under Sanford Panitch, has inked production pacts with heavy-hitters in several territories.

In Russia, Fox Intl. Prods. has projects with the producers of 12 of the 20 top-grossing Russian films of all time. In Brazil, Panitch has linked to develop Portuguese-language features with Total Films, which produced “If I Were You 2,” the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time.

And in India, its Fox Star Studios, launched last year as a production, distribution and marketing joint venture between 20th Century Fox and News Corp.’s Asian satcaster Star, is rooted in a prior grounding in the region.

Fox has a two-picture deal with local producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah, and the studio is prepping romantic laffer “Pyar ka U-turn,” the first fully homegrown Indian project to come through Fox Star Studios.

A Hindi-language version of Anne Hathaway-Kate Hudson starrer “Bride Wars,” this time centered around two warring families, is in the works as wells.

But India remains a tough nut to crack for all the studios.

In recent years, Disney’s “Roadside Romeo,” Warner’s “Chandni Chowk to China” and Sony’s “Saawariya” all failed at the box office despite having big Bollywood names in their casts.

So the strategy in India remains a mixed one.

Warner Bros is producing Indian pic “Jaane kahaa se aayi hai.” Universal is taking a wait-and-see attitude. And Sony has largely pursued an acquisitions strategy there.

So while the studios ride out a tough economy globally, they continue to look to the local scene for growth.

And though most of the local-language films greenlit are designed to work primarily in specific territories, the cross-cultural osmosis is already infusing Hollywood pics.

Universal tapped Bekmambetov to direct last summer’s Angelina Jolie actioner “Wanted” after his Russian-language “Day Watch” and “Night Watch” brought him to prominence. Fox played a key role in the financing of both by distribbing the pics in a number of territories.

Similarly, the Mexican triumvirate of Del Toro, Cuaron and Inarritu have moved between different languages.

“We’re finding talent at an embryonic stage,” says Panitch. “Some of the most exciting filmmakers now are in the international arena. The modern director today makes good films in any language.”

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